That vehicle is the Blue Note Records album, She Remembers Everything, out today (Nov. 2), whose subjects range from what she jokingly calls a “narco ballad” to physics, a topic that fascinates Cash. Most of the tracks, however, deal with the state of the country, feminism, mortality and -- in one poignant song -- gun violence, told stirringly from the perspective of the victim’s family.
Cash has long advocated for common-sense gun control. It was the subject of a blistering New York Times editorial she penned in 2017, as well as a guest essay she wrote for Billboard in 2016. In her Twitter bio, Cash describes herself as a “single-issue voter” on this topic.
This conversation with Cash comes the September morning after she’s been awarded the Spirit of Americana Free Speech Award during the Americana Music Awards at the Ryman Auditorium. It’s a prize her father, Johnny Cash, won in 2002.
Recapping her fiery awards show acceptance speech, Cash says she talked about “the three things that occupy me right now as far as activism and righteous indignation: that artists are compensated fairly … that women are not small, inferior men, and that we deserve an equal seat at the table and [in] government, and equal pay. And gun violence against children -- that our priorities have to be rearranged, and children stop being collateral damage.
“I was on the board of an organization [PAX, now part of the Brady Campaign] for 10 years [that worked to] to protect children from gun violence,” she adds. “I could not meet another grieving parent. It was killing me.”
A handful of the songs on She Remembers Everything were written a few years ago, or pre- “chaos,” as she refers to the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. One song, “Rabbit Hole,” dates back to when Cash was recovering from a 2007 surgery for benign brain condition and was in “such a dark place.” Two others, including the aforementioned “narco ballad,” were commissioned for the HBO series True Detective by its music supervisor, T Bone Burnett.
The song that stands as the album’s emotional centerpiece, “8 Gods Of Harlem,” was also penned a few years back by Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Elvis Costello, but could easily have been ripped from today’s headlines. Cash wrote a verse from the perspective of a mother who lost a child to gun violence, then Kristofferson and Costello wrote and sang their own verses from the viewpoint of the child’s father and brother, respectively.
Cash has known Kristofferson since she was a teenager, and she has been close friends with Costello for 30 years. The idea to team up came from a “vision” Cash had when she was recovering from the brain surgery. And while she says her reaction to the vision at the time was “What the hell?,” the idea stuck with her until she made it a reality.
“The Undiscovered Country” addresses both the #MeToo movement and the current administration. After the 2016 election, Cash says she felt “anguish” for her four daughters, one of whom called her crying and said, “‘I feel like I don’t matter.’ That had been in my mind even previous to that, how all women -- but young women particularly -- are treated like objects or property,” Cash says. “It was so weighing on my heart.
“I don’t know any woman who can’t say ‘me too,’” Cash says about the prevalence of sexual harassment and gender discrimination. Her daughters have “all experienced it. You want to protect your girls, and then we have a self-professed sexual predator as the leader of the free world. So by implication, that means it doesn’t matter. And it so matters. I just can’t believe that in 2018 we’re still at this place.”
Mortality is another deep theme Cash explores. In “Crossing to Jerusalem” and “Not Many Miles to Go,” she reflects on her long and happy marriage to musician and producer John Leventhal, but with the realization that “one of you is going to leave the other at some point, not by choice. And you’re not going to take anything with you except how much you loved each other.”
Leventhal, her longtime collaborator, produced half of She Remembers Everything in New York. Cash ventured to Portland, Ore., to work with producer Tucker Martine (The Decemberists, My Morning Jacket, Modest Mouse) on the other half. “I adore Tucker. He’s so inspiring and I love the records he’s made,” she says. “It was a dream to work with him.” Martine recruited Decemberists vocalist Colin Meloy to sing backing vocals on two songs.
Like her legendary father, Cash started her career as a country artist, notching 11 No. 1s and five more top 10 hits in the format in the ’80s. These days, however, the longtime New Yorker is disconnected from country music, having been more warmly embraced by Americana in recent years. For example, she’s surprised to learn that critical favorite Margo Price doesn’t get mainstream country radio airplay, and was unfamiliar with “Tomato-gate,” the much talked about controversy in country music that arose in 2015 when a radio consultant used a salad metaphor to suggest that female artists should be the “tomatoes” — essentially the garnish — in a music mix in which males are the more substantial “lettuce.”
But while her hit-making decade in country music came at a time when female artists were a bigger part of the mix than they are now, Cash’s experiences from those days mirror those of female country artists today.
“When I was coming up and visiting radio stations to promote a record, I remember clearly one radio guy saying, ‘I like the record but I can’t play it. I have too many women now and we can’t play women back to back.’” Told that most country stations still don’t play female artists back to back, Cash exclaims, “unbelievable.” And when conversation turns to another persistent bit of radio programming mythology -- that women don’t want to hear other women on the radio -- Cash practically snorts, “That’s such horseshit.”
It’s at that moment that Cash gets a welcome interruption from Keb’ Mo’, who drops by the table to show her the Statue of Liberty-themed cover art for their new duet, “Put a Woman in Charge.” The song, which dropped a few weeks ago, includes a soundbite of former President Barack Obama saying the title phrase.
“Feminist is not a bad word, and feminist doesn’t mean just indignation,” Cash says.“It also means love, and just wanting the same respect and the same seat at the table, because [women are] half of humanity.”
Cash, 63, hopes fans come away from listening to She Remembers Everything with an understanding “that women my age still have a lot to say. And that urgency and longing and righteous indignation and passion don’t go away. They don’t fade with time unless you let them.”